Merevale Abbey is situated in the heart of England and located just a few miles away from where the Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on a hot summer’s day in August 1485. It was recorded that Henry Tudor and part of his army encamped on the abbey grounds the night before the battle.
The small abbey was founded on the site in 1148 by Robert de Ferrers, 2nd Earl of Derby. The early history of the Cistercian abbey was uneventful and it appears to have been only played a moderate role in the locality as opposed to some of the larger, wealthier abbeys of the period. It seems that the abbey rarely houses more than ten monks. Nonetheless Edward I stayed at the abbey in August 1275 whilst Edward III was recorded as being at Merevale in March 1322.
In August 1485 the abbey played a significant part in English history when the army of Henry Tudor approached the gatehouse. Henry had landed in Wales after a fourteen year exile abroad and had come with the intention to usurp the English crown from Richard III, who in turn had taken the crown from his young nephew Edward V. Henry’s army had travelled down Watling Street from Shrewsbury and with a requirement for refreshment and recuperation targeted Merevale’s Cistercian abbey as the ideal resting spot.
It is possible that it was at Merevale that Henry Tudor fatefully met with his stepfather Thomas Stanley. The Stanleys intervention the following day on the side of Tudor rather than Richard III is often seen as the decisive moment of the battle. Was a plan hatched by the men whilst they were in the abbey grounds? A later observer remarked ‘it was a goodly sight to see the meeting of them’ whilst Tudor’s biographer Polydore Vergil would later write that Tudor and Stanley took each other by the hand ‘and yielding mutual salutation’ entered into ‘counsel in what sort to arraigne battle with King Richard’.
Later evidence hasbeen used to support the theory that Henry’s army stayed at Merevale Abbey. As king Henry issued a warrant reimbursing the abbey with 100 marks having ‘sustained great hurts, charges and losses, by occasion of the great repair and resort that our people coming towards our late field made, as well unto the house of Merevale aforesaid as in going over his ground, to the destruction of his corns and pastures’. Payments were also made to other settlements in the region, including £24 20s 4d to Atherstone, £20 to Fenny Drayton and £13 to Witherley amongst other townships.
Furthermore in September 1503 the king returned to Merevale whilst on progress and visited the abbey. He commemorated his great victory by sanctioning a new stained glass window depicting his favoured saint, Armel. The decision to use a saint that was very personal to him as opposed to a national symbol like George suggests Henry felt a deep connection with Merevale and wanted to convey his appreciation for the role the abbey played in his victory. The small figure of Armel can still be viewed in the South Aisle of the Gate Chapel, a rare depiction of this saint in England. Another place the saint can be viewed is in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey where a statue of Armel is located close to the magnificent tomb of the king. On 30 October 1511 Henry Tudor’s son and successor Henry VIII paid a visit to the abbey with his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon.
Despite this close connection with the Tudor dynasty Merevale Abbey was nonetheless dissolved on 13 October 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII and gradually fell into ruin. The surrender of the house was signed by Abbot William Arnold who was compensated with a pension of £40. Sub-abbot John Ownsbe and four of the monks received £5 6s 8d with three other monks received £5 and one other monk receiving only 3s 4d. The monastery and the lands were put into the possession of the Lord Ferrers two days later.
Today the only remaining part of the Abbey still used for religious service is the former Gate Chapel, which is now utilised as the parish church. This church contains a sizable degree of stained glass of historical significance, including a Jesse window often considered to amongst the most important in Britain. The window has been dated to around 1330 and was presumably original positioned inside the abbey proper. It contains a tree linking ten kings and prophets. Elsewhere is the aforementioned stained glass window depicting St Armel, placed there by Henry Tudor after he had become king.
The remainder of the abbey ruins can be found on private land, namely grounds owned by the Abbey Farm Bed & Breakfast. The remains are thought to primarily be those connected to the north and south walls of the Refectory, including a full moulded doorway.
Kent is undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of England and is generally known as the ‘Garden of England’. Suitably located between London and the port of Calais, it is unsurprising to discover that Kent possesses substantial Tudor heritage. Throughout the county are an abundance of castles, abbeys and churches with sixteenth century connections and this article will document some of those.
Hever Castle is without a doubt the jewel in Kent’s Tudor crown and is notable for its connection to the Boleyn family. Although it contains thirteenth century origins the castle truly came into being when it was converted into a substantial manor house by Mayor of London Geoffrey Boleyn in 1462. Geoffrey’s grandson Thomas Boleyn inherited Hever in 1505 and lived there with his wife Elizabeth and children George, Mary and Anne.
Hever Castle was extensively restored by American magnate William Waldorf Astor during the early twentieth century and the result is a quintessential castle with very few equals in Europe. The crenellated keep has an abundance of arrow loops and complex chimneys with a moat that ensures Hever Castle creates an awe-striking impression upon the visitor. The wooden drawbridge and portcullis which leads to through the gatehouse and into the courtyard is considered to be as it was when the Boleyn’s journeyed through it during the sixteenth century.
On permanent display in the castle is Anne’s personal Book of Hours, complete with examples of her handwriting, whilst another temporary exhibition showcasing the marital bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York can be viewed in the Long Gallery, built by Thomas Boleyn in 1506 and which at various times hosted Henry VIII.
Although the castle’s association with Anne Boleyn is the primary reason Hever has remained so evocative it should be noted the premises was owned by Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves between 1540 and her death in 1557, bestowed upon her a part of her divorce settlement. Intriguing to note is the hidden catholic chapel that was built at Hever in 1584 by then-owners the Waldegrave family, recusant Roman Catholics worshipping in secret at a time when it was outlawed by Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I. The castle was saved from possible ruin by Astor and his careful and delicate restoration has resulted in Hever’s heritage to be savoured 500 years after its most famous resident loitered amongst the confines.
St Peter’s Church, Hever
St Peter’s Church in Hever is notable as the final resting place of Sir Thomas Boleyn, resident of the nearby castle and controversial father of the Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas’ tomb can be found in a place of honour near the altar and is a simple affair, perhaps indicative of the discreet way his life ended with shamed exile from court. Thomas Boleyn died on 12 March 1539 and his tomb is adorned with a brass plate depicting the one-time queen’s father in the robes of a Knight of the Garter which he was once accustomed to wearing. Noticeable above his shoulder is the Boleyn family emblem of a falcon. St Peter’s has been the parish church of Hever since at least the fourteenth century and during her childhood at Hever it is not fanciful to suggest that Anne, along with the wider Boleyn family, were well acquainted with the church.
Leeds Castle is a dramatic medieval fortress-turned-palatial home partially enclosed by a substantial moat and with its charming setting in the centre of a sprawling garden estate it can certainly rival Hever Castle in its fairy-tale appearance.
The castle has origins in the twelfth century and by the end of the thirteenth century was known to be a favoured residence of King Edward I. During the early fifteenth century the castle was owned by Katherine de Valois, widow of King Henry V. Katherine’s scandalous marriage to Welshman Owen Tudor introduced the Tudors into English society and their grandson Henry Tudor would secure the crown at Bosworth in 1485. It is tantalising to suggest that Katherine and Owen may have shared romantic trysts in Leeds enchanting surroundings. As part of the crown estate the castle passed into the control of the Tudors after their accession to the throne of England and in 1519 Henry VIII presented Leeds Castle to his first wife Katherine of Aragon. Still evident in the Queen’s Gallery are dynastic engravings relating to Katherine, including her heraldic badge of the pomegranate.
In 1520 Leeds Castle played host to the royal court when Henry, his queen, and a retinue numbering in the thousands stayed in the castle grounds prior to crossing the English Channel on the way to France for the fabled Field of the Cloth of Gold summit with French king Francis I. In 1552 the castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger, ending over 300 years of royal ownership. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign it appears four marble busts were commission of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth herself and these are still on display in the gallery.
Substantial investment and renovation has taken place at Leeds over the centuries, notably in the early twentieth century. The result is a palatial complex considered to be the ‘loveliest castle in the world’ and although genuine Tudor features are at a minimum, it is nonetheless a location worthy of exploration.
Rochester Castle’s Norman keep is a domineering stone structure that overlooks the River Medway with an authoritative confidence that was a trademark of the twelfth century. Whilst the majority of the castle lies in ruins the keep itself is generally intact, which is perhaps indicative of the quality of its workmanship when one considers the castle was sacked during the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
It was within the medieval fortress that Henry VIII first met his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, an encounter which has been told and retold with such embellishment in popular culture the truth has become somewhat obscured by myth. Anne begun her lengthy journey to England in the winter of 1539 and by New Years’ Eve had arrived at Rochester. The king could hardly contain his excitement and journeyed from London the following day with boyish enthusiasm to surprise his new wife, incognito. The disguised king burst into Anne’s room with five of his companions and begun to make romantic advances towards the startled duchess, unaware of this English custom. His attempts failed; Anne barely responded and the humiliated king stormed out of the room, the marriage doomed from the first day. Whilst the ‘flander’s mare’ comment is a seventeenth century invention, it was reported that Henry nonetheless declared that the Duchess was ‘nothing so well as she was spoken off’. By July the marriage had been annulled.
St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury
Christianity was brought to Canterbury and England by St Augustine, who established a Benedictine abbey in the city in 598. Augustine’s abbey was one of the largest and wealthiest in the kingdom for over nine hundred years until its dissolution in 1538 under the reign of Henry VIII. As part of Henry’s Reformation the abbey was surrendered to the king’s commissioners on 30 July that year and the property became part of the crown estate. The king set about transforming part of the erstwhile ecclesiastical building into a luxurious palatial retreat which was initially used by Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Queen Elizabeth I was also known to have stayed at the new palace during one of her Kent progresses although the building gradually fell into disrepair during the seventeenth century. Although now a dramatic ruin the red bricks of the Tudor palace are still visible along with the original abbey walls. Furthermore two gatehouses mark the former entrances into the abbey ground’s and are reminiscent of similar gates at Hampton Court.
Christ Church Gate, Canterbury
The splendid gateway which stands in the city’s Butter Market area provides access into the Cathedral grounds but is a wonderful display of early sixteenth century architecture in itself. The gate was completed in 1517 and is a celebration of the reign of Henry Tudor, the father of then-king Henry VIII.
Prominent on the façade of the gatehouse are the collection of coats of arms with preferential placement afforded to the arms of Henry VII, his son Prince Arthur and daughter-in-law Katherine of Aragon. Also present is the crowned Tudor Rose and Beaufort portcullis, two traditional emblems of the first Tudor king. Another large Tudor Rose adornment can be viewed inside the gatehouse on the ceiling, capturing the attention of all who walk through the passageway and into the cathedral grounds.
Canterbury Cathedral is the mother church of the Anglican communion and has been considered the premier holy seat of England for over a thousand years. Although the cathedral is perhaps best known as the location of Thomas Becket’s brutal murder in 1170 it does also possess a substantial Tudor heritage. Upon the approach to the cathedral immediately striking is the 250 foot central tower, often referred to as the Bell Harry tower. This was erected in 1498 during the reign of Henry VII and was financed in part by Archbishop John Morton, whose tomb lies inside the cathedral’s crypt. Cardinal Morton was one of the king’s closest and most trusted advisors and assisted in ruling the country, in time becoming notorious for his harsh financial policies which helped bolster the royal treasury. He served as archbishop from 1486 until 1500 and became a cardinal in 1493. Morton died on 15 September 1500 and his tomb in the crypt is arguably the most extravagant in the cathedral, generously covered in Tudor imagery such as the red and white rose as well as angels and cardinal’s caps. Also featured are a collection of tun barrels inscribed with the word Mor, a pun on his name Mor-ton.
Although the killing of Becket occurred over 300 years before the Tudors came to power, by the late fifteenth century the beatified saint was revered throughout the kingdom, particularly by monarch’s seeking the goodwill of God. That being said, the Henrican Reformation of the late 1530s witnessed a dramatic change in how England began to view Christianity and amongst the many changes which Henry VIII brought in was the abolishing of shrines. A notable casualty of his policy was Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, which was routinely destroyed with great pleasure upon the orders of the authoritative king. It was recorded that the treasures found in Becket’s shrine were so substantial it took twenty-six carts to tow it all away. The location of Becket’s shrine is now marked with a solitary candle, a poignant reminder of the site of medieval England’s greatest such monument.
As well as Morton, located elsewhere in the cathedral are a number of other tombs related to the Tudors. Located close to where Thomas Becket met his end is the elaborate effigy of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1503 and 1532. Warham was initially employed by Henry VII as a diplomat and helped arrange the marriage of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon in 1502. After becoming archbishop a year later he also served for a time as Lord Chancellor. In 1509 Warham crowned Henry VIII at Westminster Abbey and also married the young king to Katherine of Aragon. Two decades later he would play a role in the divorce crisis that threatened to tear apart the kingdom, initially taking a view that Henry should be granted his request although later clashing with the king over his attempts to break with Rome. His death in August 1532 saved him from the king’s wrath and Warham was interred in Canterbury on 10 September that year.
Another notable tomb located in the cathedral is that of Thomas Bourchier who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1454. Bourchier was notable for his role in the reigns of three kings towards the end of the Wars of the Roses. Bourchier crowned kings Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII and also officiated at the wedding of the latter king to Elizabeth of York which symbolically united the houses of York and Lancaster. Unlike many clerics Bourchier had an impeccable aristocratic pedigree and was a great-grandson of Edward III as well as brother of Henry Bourchier, 1st Earl of Essex, and half-brother of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Bourchier died on 30 March 1486 and was accorded a lavish burial fit for a high-ranking member of both the nobility and the church. His tomb is located close to where the shrine of Thomas Becket once stood, a position of honour.
Situated on the cathedral’s west front are a collection of Victorian statues which depict various monarchs throughout English history. Notable amongst these are Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Dover Castle is often considered to be England’s oldest fort and is currently a vast complex of buildings which collectively represent every era of the nation’s history. There are Roman, Saxon, Medieval and Tudor remains at the castle as well as an array of buildings which played key roles in the two twentieth century World Wars. Dover Castle has been a fortress at the forefront of England’s defences for over a thousand years.
It is unsurprising to discover this was particularly true during the sixteenth century when Henry VIII regularly tussled with Spain and France for supremacy in this part of Europe. At various points it seemed that invasion was likely therefore Henry proceeded to bolster the defences at Dover, including the construction of a couple of Bulwark towers to support the great Norman keep that looms high above the acclaimed white cliffs. Henry held the title of Constable of Dover as a child and may have felt a degree of connection with the castle. He notably stayed at the castle for two weeks in June 1513, using the keep’s royal apartments to good effect. He was again based at Dover in May 1520 prior to departing for France for a summit with King Francis I, a meeting better known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Although the surrounding buildings are generally of a later period, the keep itself remains as it was during the Tudor period and offers incredible views across the English Channel, a view Henry may have taken in as he dreamt of winning great victories across the water.
Eltham Palace is perhaps the lesser known royal palace within the modern London boundaries, often overlooked in favour of Hampton Court, the Tower of London or Greenwich Palace. It may be because the vast majority of the palace is today an art-deco masterpiece which gained a new lease of life during the early twentieth century.
Nonetheless Eltham still has surviving architectural features which would have been recognisable to the Tudors, particularly the splendid Great Hall. Eltham’s hall was built in the 1470s by King Edward IV who used the palace as a peaceful country retreat in the Kent countryside. After Henry Tudor came to the throne in 1485 he inherited the palace as part of the crown estate and equally felt favourable towards the property. Ideally situated away from the bustling and polluted London but close enough to visit, Henry based his royal nursery at Eltham, positioning most of his young children within the palace walls. Amongst those who spent a sizable amount of time at Eltham was the future Henry VIII, who would have roamed around the grounds as an impressionable and enthusiastic young boy. His sisters Margaret and Mary also joined him for periods of time as did his younger siblings Edmund and Elizabeth, both of whom would tragically die in childhood. The Princess Elizabeth actually passed away at Eltham, succumbing from disease on 14 September 1495.
Four years later the royal nursery was visited by Thomas More and his friend Desiderius Erasmus, who came across a buoyant and expectant Prince Henry. The Dutch humanist would later comment that the young royal ‘had a vivid and active mind, above measure to execute whatever tasks he undertook’. Henry was also educated at Eltham by the poet John Skelton and it seems that it was whilst growing up at this palace he began to develop an intellect and outlook on life that would later become both charismatic and deadly as an adult.
The Great Hall went through periods of ruin during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but was rescued when the property came into the ownership of the wealthy Courtauld family in the 1930s. The hall was restored and the oak hammer-beam roof appears as spectacular on first viewing as it must have done to the Tudors five hundred years ago. It is fair to suggest that Henry cherished his time at Eltham for he later extended part of the palace in 1519 when he was king as well as spending reasonable amounts time visiting. No other monarch after Henry VIII considered Eltham Palace to be worthy of their time. Anne Boleyn is said to have visited Eltham at various times during her marriage and courtship to Henry.
A modern embellishment which is nonetheless worthy of attention is the stained glass window which depicts various royal coats of arms, including that of Henry VII erroneously credited to his son Henry VIII. Also noteworthy is the stone bridge which gives modern access to the grounds which is off fifteenth century provenance and which would have once been passed by various members of the Tudor dynasty.
Deal and Walmer Castles
Deal and Walmer Castles are a pair of remarkable coastal forts which were built under the orders of Henry VIII in 1539 to defend his kingdom against Spanish and French aggression following the Reformation. The two forts are situated under two miles apart and would have combined to provide a degree of protection against any ships which approached the coast of Kent. A third castle was also based at nearby Sandown but this has no surviving ruins.
What makes Deal and Walmer particularly unique is their layout – both appear from the air to resemble the Tudor rose, a result of their multiple semi-circular bastion towers. These towers contain a variety of rooms inside, such as guard quarters and gunpowder stores, whilst their roofs have stone platforms which were loaded with cannon guns directed out to sea. Both were once accessed via a wooden drawbridge built across a moat but today stone bridges offer a permanent crossing. It is thought that Henry personally inspected his sea forts although ultimately they were not utilised during his reign as the invasion threat from the continent never truly materialised.